Balancing risk and reward to influence customer behaviour

The key comms challenges to making a sustainable business work

Last month I had the pleasure of attending Sustainability Live, an event designed to highlight some of the biggest sustainability conversations happening today; from the use of generative AI to tackle climate change and the dangers of fallible data, to how to simplify systems to make sustainable living more accessible for all.

Throughout the on-site debates and discussions, one key theme emerged: for sustainability businesses, comms has an integral role to play in encouraging consumers to share in their principles, and advocating for behavioural change among their target audiences. But addressing sustainability with a broad brush simply isn’t enough – businesses need visible and actionable transition plans to achieve net zero.

Gen AI – not the silver bullet, but another one in the chamber

Generative AI for example is one potential route of exploration, and the event’s dedicated forum highlighted its potential to solve climate issues that society has faced for years. From predictive modelling to forecast natural disasters, accelerating decarbonisation projects through automated data analysis, and optimising energy consumption – Gen AI gives us a wealth of new tools to help combat the climate crisis. But an interesting dichotomy emerged between two panellists around the potential risks and rewards of using Gen AI to tackle climate change, diverging on the need to implement Gen AI now if we’re to avoid irreversible climate damage or whether more caution is still required around the risks posed by unreliable data. Whilst their tolerance for risk differed, they agreed  businesses need to explain how they are using Gen AI to tackle sustainability issues, rather than opaquely referencing its usage.

That degree of openness in how they’re using AI to evaluate risk is imperative, as it promotes transparency in their decision-making around sustainability. As comms professionals, that means translating complex AI-driven sustainability initiatives into clear and relatable messages, and communicating the robust data sources and algorithms that sit behind them, so that stakeholders understand how AI is augmenting decision-making processes.

Circularity and insularity cannot go hand in hand

The circular economy cannot function without collaboration. That might seem counterintuitive given the nature of a circle, especially in business, where circularity often means a business solely reusing its own materials and its own products. But it’s better to view a truly circular economy as multiple circles joined together as on a business level, businesses work best when they work together.

This was one of the key points made in another discussion around how to make circular economies work at scale. Getting businesses to buy into the principles of collaboration requires them to suspend an instinctive characteristic of any business – competitiveness. Competitive instincts tend to govern decision making, and whilst sustainability continues to move up the agenda, it still sits firmly behind market dominance for most.

Businesses looking to lead the way in building circular economies at scale need to think about how they communicate their goals to stakeholders. Whether by driving more strategic commitments with competitors or pushing executives to publicly call for industry collaboration on sustainability, now is the time for them to act as an accountable party for making their industry adopt circularity, and communicate as such. That requires them to look beyond what drives profit, and instead align their comms strategy with their purpose to achieve long-term success.

There’s still work to do to overcome the “intention-behaviour” gap

It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t at least somewhat support the ideals of sustainability, with 88% of people in the UK wanting to make more sustainable choices if they could. “Could” is the key word here, and was another salient point raised in the event’s Circular Economy forum.

For many consumers, living more sustainably invokes thoughts of higher costs and inconvenience, and businesses face a persistent challenge in closing the gap between intention and behaviour, and convincing customers to buy into sustainability just as much as they do.

In addition to easier and more affordable systems, a key answer to that quandary lies in communication. Sustainability shouldn’t be seen as an additional task or burden – it should seamlessly align with daily decisions and routines, and complement existing habit loops in people’s lives rather than disrupt them. Opting for a sustainable lifestyle needn’t be seen as a complete step change in their lives; we as storytellers need to choose language and craft messaging that conveys simplicity, and educates as to how easily surmountable these barriers are.

Sustainability Live served as a perfect reminder of the pivotal role of effective communication in solving some of the biggest challenges in the sustainability landscape. And equally, for cleantech comms professionals, it reminded us of the biggest challenge we all face: how to calibrate our business’ sustainability goals with the way we communicate externally.

It starts with shifting your comms strategy to align with the higher purpose of sustainability, and emphasising its integral role in your organisation’s mission. It’s then brought to life by regular reporting on progress against pledges and being unafraid to embrace cross-industry collaboration to effect change. In this era of responsible consumption, comms can be your catalyst for change. Get in touch if you want to hear more about how we can help elevate your businesses communications and power us towards a more sustainable future.